The Good Kind of Fear

A friend of mine did time in the ’80s. He was awaiting his transfer from a county jail to prison when an older man he admired said to him, “You’re about to go to prison. If you want to survive, you’re going to have to earn respect. Here’s how you earn it: be honest, work hard, and never complain. If you do that, you can earn respect.”

While he was incarcerated, my friend did exactly what the man said. Before long, he was earning respect from others. But he still had insecurities.

In fact, the more my friend worked at being respected, the more he worried about what everyone thought of him. Would he make a mistake that ruined the respect others had for him? Would he become a target? Worrying about these things filled his days with anxiety.

Respect is often based on fear. If you’re a fan of a professional football team that isn’t the Patriots, you respect Tom Brady when your team is down by three, there are only two minutes left, and the Patriots have the ball. Even if you don’t like the Patriots, you respect their ability to dominate on the field.

More seriously, there may be people on your unit that no one messes with, not because they are well-liked, but because they know how to intimidate—or worse.

But is that the only way to do time? Watching your back and earning or showing respect based out of fear?

Respecting God—a Healthy Fear

The Bible tells us there’s a better way. Matthew 10:28 says, “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

So, are you just supposed to cower before God instead, hoping a lightning bolt isn’t headed your way?

No. The Bible talks about different kinds of fear. There’s the kind you usually think of—the fear you experience when a threatening person or situation confronts you. It’s fear that makes you comply with someone’s demands to avoid getting hurt. The Bible says that God’s perfect love, demonstrated through His Son Jesus, casts out that kind of terror.

But there’s another kind of fear—the loving, respectful fear that a child has for a good, loving, and committed parent. A child who loves and respects his parent wants to do everything he can to please him or her. He fears the consequences of disobeying his parent—not because he fears the punishment, but because he doesn’t want to disappoint or hurt the most important person in his world.

When the Bible talks about fearing God, it’s referring to this loving type of fear—fear rooted in respect and love for God the Father.  So, a man with a healthy fear of God is not terrified of Him. He understands that while God can destroy the body and soul, He doesn’t want to. In fact, God “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Respect is Earned, Grace is Given

The truth is that God is full of grace. He loves you so much that He sent His Son, Jesus, who willingly sacrificed Himself and died for everything you’ve ever done wrong. All He asks in return is that you put your faith in Him.

In our world, gaining someone’s respect can come at a cost, and often takes effort. But God’s grace does not need to be earned—it’s free and available to all who believe in Jesus.

My friend spent eight years behind bars worried about what others thought of him. And his stress didn’t end with his sentence. After several years struggling to earn the respect of people on the outside, he found himself back in prison for four more years.

But during his second sentence, my friend decided to fear God instead of people. He decided to accept God’s gift of grace, and let that relationship determine his values and actions. He spent those four years at peace with himself and his fellow prisoners.

What if you did the same? What if, instead of fearing other people and their opinion of you, you were unconditionally loved and accepted by an all-powerful God?

Being respected and respecting others is important, but as my friend learned through his anxieties, you will never find peace by focusing only on the respect of others. True peace comes from the Lord.

If you fearfully respect God and accept the never-ending grace He freely offers, you’ll find what you’ve been searching for all along.


This article originally appeared on Prison Fellowship’s blog.

Technology is Not Neutral

Most people think technology is neutral and can good or bad, depending on how you use it.

That would be true if forms of technology were value-less, or didn’t come with their own inherent set of values.

But they do.

Technology is not neutral. I repeat, technology is NOT neutral.

Why Technology is Not Neutral

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, says in an interview[1] that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are, indeed, not neutral.

Many people assume these platforms are neutral and believe their experience is based on how they choose to use them. But that understanding misses the reality that each of these companies has thousands of “attention engineers” working to distract its users away from whatever they are doing, and then keep their attention as long as they can.

Harris explained that the theories behind how they engineer their products are coming from the casino industry — an industry notorious for its manipulation of consumers. His comments from one an essay are worth quoting at length:

If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices?

How often do you check your email per day?

One major reason why is the number one psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.

… But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket:

  • When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
  • When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
  • When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
  • When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
  • When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.

Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business.

Technology is not neutral; it’s designed to get your attention, whether intentionally or not. And that’s because technology has values.

Technology Has Values

Since most people today think technology is neutral and its moral value is found in its uses, they miss something crucial to understand about technology — it comes with its own values.

Technology is not built in a moral vacuum. A technology’s design imbues it with a set of morals which are then inherent to its use.

John Dyer uses the example of iTunes and the music industry to illustrate how technology has inherent values:

In previous decades, music was recorded on and sold by physical means — vinyl, cassettes, CDs.

In the years since iTunes was released, the music industry has shifted almost entirely to a digital (non-physical) medium of distribution, giving birth to a world where small bands could be known around the world, where consumers buy less music, artists get paid less per song, and many brick-and-mortar stores and businesses have gone bankrupt.

These changes happened because iTunes values quick, easy, and cheap access to music.

While these values may be neutral in and of themselves, iTunes is certainly responsible for positive and negative changes in the world of music.[2]

Another example Dyer gives is cell phones. Originally, people began buying cell phones for safety reasons; they wanted to be able to call someone in need of an emergency.

“We bought our phones,” says Dyer, “because we valued solving one problem (safety) without realizing that the phone also brings with it the value of constant connection.”[3]

Because we didn’t recognize that value of constant connection, we now live in a world where our phones beckon our attention away from whatever is in front of us around the clock.

Yes, anything we could want to know is available all at once, but to have that possibility required us to give up the ability to be fully present.

Technology is not neutral because each form of technology comes with its own set of values — values you may or may not share.


[1] https://samharris.org/podcasts/what-is-technology-doing-to-us/

[2] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 88 –89.

[3] Ibid., 95.

How to Calm and Quiet Your Soul

I careened into the driveway and slammed the engine into park. My breathing was shallow and quick. I was hot and sweaty and felt like the car was closing in on me.

I flung open the door and hung my legs out, hunching over on my knees. What is happening to me? I wondered. I re-traced my day, realizing I had lost myself in a mental spiral about my career. I knew I would soon be looking for another job, though I didn’t know what kind, if I would have to move my family, or what that would even look like.

Fortunately, I was seeing a counselor around that time. I told her what happened, and she asked about my prayer life. “Huh?” I said, confused. “Your prayer life. How is it?” she replied.

Ugh, I thought, knowing it was basically non-existent. “It’s not very good,” I told her.

As we talked, I realized that as my anxiety increased, my prayer decreased. As my inner world became noisier, I filled the prayer space with podcasts, music, and audiobooks—anything to keep me from dealing with my thoughts.

And it was ruining me.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

The Bad of Technology

The church must start thinking seriously about technology, as I’ve written. My last post briefly covered some of the good of technology and explained that technology always comes with tradeoffs.

Now it’s time to examine some of those tradeoffs.

Ignoring the Immediate

The first negative effect of modern technology is that it nudges us to ignore who or what is right in front of us. Sherry Turkle, one of the foremost researchers in this area, writes,

These days, we want to be with each other but also elsewhere, connected to whatever else we want to be, because what we value most is control over where we put our attention.[1]

Devices and services today promise their users they will never be bored. There is always a social network to check, a video to watch, and news to catch up on, and all of it is designed specifically for us.

This is why we instinctively grab for our phones in the checkout line, at stoplights, at the dinner table, and, yes, even in the restroom.

When we’re all distracted by a universe of our own making, there is little time for engaging in risky, personal interactions with strangers or family members. After all, there is no certainty these interactions will bring happiness, so the urge to jump back into our personalized portal is all the stronger.

Citing Proverbs 27:17, Tony Reinke, author of Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, says,

The most shaping conversations we need are full of friction, and we simply cannot have them on our frictionless phones.[2]

For Christians, ignoring the people God has in front of us is especially problematic, as he often works through the people around us to conform us to his image and to show us tangible expressions of his love. C. S. Lewis said,

[God] works on us in all sorts of ways. . . . He works through Nature, through our own bodies, through books, sometimes through experiences. . . . But above all, He works on us through each other.[3]

When we’re lost in our phones, we may be missing what God wants to reveal to us through the people right in front of us.

Constant Distraction and Eroding Attention Spans

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the time we’re spending on our phones is eroding our attention spans. In a 2013 Microsoft study, humans living always-on, connected lives in Canada were found to have shorter attention spans than goldfish.[4]

While goldfish can hold their focus for an average of nine seconds, those surveyed in Microsoft’s study were only capable of focusing for an average of eight.

Regardless of the survey’s scientific merit, the study emphasizes something most people sense intuitively—that we are more distracted than ever, constantly feeling overwhelmed by the onslaught of information that floods our eyes and ears.

To keep up with it all, the average adult checks their phone 150 times a day.[5] That means adults are spending an average of almost two hours a day on their phones. For most smartphone users, their phone is the first thing they see when they wake up, and the last thing they see before going to bed.

Even tech CEOs know there’s a problem. In an open memo to all Microsoft employees, Satya Nadella, the company’s CEO, said the world we live in is one where “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”[6]

An extreme example of how people are altering their behavior to cope with the constant distractions of modern life is “phubbing.” Sherry Turkle explains that the term “means maintaining eye contact while texting.” According to Turkle, phubbing is commonplace among her students, and they say they do it with relative ease.[7]

While the phenomenon of phubbing is concerning, so are the effects of distraction on literacy.

Literacy

Here again, the words of another powerful person inside one of the tech giants are illuminating.

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Eric Schmidt, then the CEO of Google and now the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), said,

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information—and especially of stressful information—is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.[8]

Schmidt is highlighting the deepening worry that many have about the digital world’s effect on literacy.

It’s not that words on a screen are inherently less readable, but that people don’t read text on a screen the same way they read text on the page. Tony Reinke writes,

With digital text on our phones, we are conditioned to skim quickly. With a printed book in hand, we naturally read more slowly, at a pace realistic for retention. . . . But we have been trained not to linger over digital texts.[9]

David Brooks likens the problem of comprehension in the digital age to that of a trying to read at an endless cocktail party. At cocktail parties, there are multiple side conversations going on as guests mingle with one another and work their way around the room.

Cocktail parties are great for entertainment, but not so great for concentration.

Brooks argues that the endless stream of social media and news forms the same background chatter as an endless cocktail party. Trying to read in that environment is simply too distracting, and it prevents one from forming what he calls “crystallized intelligence”—

the ability to use experience, knowledge, and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory. It is the ability to make analogies and comparisons about things you have studied before. Crystallized intelligence accumulates wisdom over the years and leads ultimately to understanding and wisdom.[10]

Brook’s term “crystallized intelligence” captures the heart of the concern over literacy—that people are reading as much or more than ever, but are comprehending less and less, and therefore not accumulating wisdom.

Loneliness

The most significant negative effect of modern technology is loneliness, which I wrote about in detail here. I won’t re-hash that same material here except to say that loneliness is an epidemic in our culture and is wreaking havoc on our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I’m excited to turn from the good and the bad of technology to what the Bible says about it, but before I do, I have to take the time to explain why technology is not neutral. That’ll be the theme of my next post.


[1] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 19.

[2] Tony Reinke, Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 125.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 2009), 163.

[4] Timothy Egan, “The Eight Second Attention Span,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html (accessed July 15, 2017).

[5] Kenneth Burke, “Here’s How Often the Average American Checks Their Phone Every Day,” TextRequest.com, https://www.textrequest.com/blog/americans-check-their-cell-phones-150-times-a-day/ (accessed June 29, 2017).

[6] Alyson Gausby, “Attention Spans: Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada,” https://graysonpope.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf (accessed June 27, 2017).

[7] Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, 4.

[8] Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 164–165.

[9] Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, 84.

[10] David Brooks, “Building Attention Span,” The New York Times, July 10, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/10/opinion/david-brooks-building-attention-span.html (accessed June 8, 2017).

You Are Jesus’ Cup of Tea

Trust him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting — no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you — you believe simply that Somebody Else, by his death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop-closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If he refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead — and for him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you his cup of tea.

—Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three (H/T to Alan Jacobs for the quote)